So it seems I have booked passage on the fast train through bullet hell. With my review of Sine Mora for the PS3 out in the open, I took less then a minute to breathe the fresh open air before diving head first into the HD re-release of Under Defeat, a shoot'em up (or shmup, as the hip lingo goes) originally released on the... Dreamcast in 2006. Let that sink in for a second, and when you've composed yourself, feel free to read on. Or just keep reading over that last sentence again. Your choice.
Before the title card rears it's head, players are greeted by a short sequence of still photos, describing an epic war between the “Empire” and the “Union,” and the war's escalation just days before a cease-fire was signed. Now, for anyone that has played a Japanese shmup, or any other game from that side of the ocean, you know that can't be all of the story.
The real deal is that Under Defeat is an alternate take on good old World War 2, with players actually fighting on the side of German speaking soldiers whose uniforms have a striking resemblance to those worn by SS officers. Would you ever have been able to glean any of this information without me sharing it or you looking it up? No. While the uniforms bear some resemblance, as do some of the ships and tanks you fight against, there is nothing that appears on screen that says “Hey, I am a Nazi.” (Sidenote: any overt symbolism was taken out of the HD re-release.)
All non-symbolism aside, you take the role of the pilot of Airwolf... ok, not really. It is, however, a very sophisticated helicopter with a movement scheme quite unlike the myriad of other scrolling shooters out there. With the fire button (X in this case) held down, the helicopter strafes from side to side, raining death and dismemberment on its enemies. Let go of the fire button though, and the helicopter shifts on its axis about 45 degrees in either direction, letting you rain you bullet-ey death from... ANGLES!
Typing it out like that doesn't quite add the gravitas I was looking for, but none the less, changing your angle to get a better shot at enemies is essential at progressing through the 5 stage campaign. (Sidenote: the developers saw fit to add a secondary control scheme, turning the game into a dual stick shooter, where the right stick controls both the angle and activates the main gun. This of course is a less authentic experience, but it's also far easier to deal with.)
No Airw- sophisticated helicopter is complete without weapons, and Under Defeat only disappoints slightly in this regard. You always have your main gun, a machine gun with two thin outer strands and a thick center strand (I guess they're firing different kinds of bullets, maybe, though there are no weapon upgrades to be found through the rest of the game). Your heli also comes equipped with a limited use screen clearing bomb, and an “Option.”
So maybe it wasn't the most brilliant of names, but the “Option” is an excellent... well, option to have in a firefight. Activated by a gauge that fills when your helicopter isn't firing, the “Option” comes in three varieties (straight shooting machine gun, dead on accurate Vulcan cannon, and rocket), which normally are randomly chosen, though it can be manually influenced through enemy drops. Each is available for a limited amount of time with an individually set cool down in between activations, and, with the exception of the straight machine gun, are almost always game changers.
Using those weapons, and shooting them at those ANGLES!, Under Defeat drags you through a short 5 stage campaign. Once I had the patterns down I was able to clear all 5 in less then 45 minutes, and once cleared, the game opens up Extra mode, which is the all same campaign levels, only it's their mirror reflection (enemies show up on the opposite side of the screen, and the stage itself is flipped). Also available is an Arcade mode, which changes the resolution to that of an arcade cabinet, with static images of anime girl fighting pilots taking up what would otherwise be unused portions of the screen.
Even with the HD update, Under Defeat looks dated. The standard military color scheme of brown and grey is applied in full force to both the background and the enemy types, with really the only differentiation coming in both the size, type and pattern of projectile they're shooting at you. Add to that a huge drop in frame rate anytime more then one things blows up, and you're looking at a catastrophe of deadly boring proportions. On the plus side, the bad frame rate does tend to slow the bullets down enough for anyone who isn't trained from birth to discern patterns in laser fire, only it stops you from moving fast enough to do anything with that info.
From what I can tell through exhaustive, mostly passive research, Under Defeat is thought of quite highly in the shmup community, especially by collectors, who up until this re-release had a rare product on their hands.
That being said, I was less then impressed with it. Not being a super hardcore shmup fan myself probably has something to do with it, but after seeing/playing recent releases like Sine Mora, Deathsmiles, and Akai Katana Shin, I just don't see the appeal in taking a few step backwards, which is exactly what Under Defeat feels like, and not just in the graphics department.
Shmups are naturally an exercise in patience, but Under Defeat takes that a step further by treating a $30 release like it was a coin-op, complete with limited lives and limited continues. While admire the relentless pursuit of perfection born out of numerous runs, or even UD's practice mode, having that forced upon me just to finish a short campaign is a waste of my time. I've already own the product, isn't multiple playthroughs assumed with a game like this. Why force it on the player, essentially locking content behind a skill wall? I get that it's the hardcore way of thinking, that I should be good enough if I want to see everything, but in this day and age, it's quickly becoming an antiquated way of thinking. My skill level determines my own enjoyment of the game, not yours, and having a barrier like that on a game re-released on modern platforms doesn't seem right, and it isn't much fun.
Technically sound, Under Defeat HD has a number of technical hiccups that keep it from fully joining this generation. As a time machine back to the days when games were still being made for the Dreamcast, it stands as a stark reminder that nostalgia doesn't always shine the clearest light on old games. Unless you are a die hard fan, consider other cheaper, and most of all, better alternatives.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!